No-one should have to kiss any more frogs than could reasonably be expected and until a decade ago, a French kiss with a vins de pays frog was not an exercise to be carried out without substantial quantities of mouthwash to hand. Not to put too fine a point on it, the quality of appellation controlées’s distant country cousins varied from indifferent to mediocre. France’s vins de pays were and still are essentially table wines with a regional designation. The region of origin might be as large as the sprawling Vins de Pays d’Oc covering the length and breadth of the Languedoc-Roussillon or as small and obscure and the Monty Pythonesque-sounding Vin de Pays des Côtes du Brian. No expectations were made of these humdrum table wines, but they did have untapped potential.
At a time when, thanks to the New World, variety was rapidly becoming the spice of life, vins de pays started to raise their game by asserting their regional, varietal and quality credentials. Maybe the wake-up call also came partly because their appellation contrôlée counterparts wines were seen not to be delivering great value, but thanks to a concerted effort by pioneering individual domaines, forward-looking negociants and go-ahead cooperatives, producers of vins de pays took advantage of the relative flexibility of the rules. They planted interesting grape varieties in their vineyards, sold them under varietal names and came closer generally to the needs of consumers for good value and interesting relatively restrained flavours. At a time of increasingly tough competition from the New World, vins de pays made out a good case for demonstrating that next to their often overblown AC colleagues, they could offer very good value.
For the past few years, I have participated in an event organised by Anivit, the vins de pays organization, aimed at selecting a Top 100 vins de pays in the UK. This year the panel of 18 judges, including some of the UK’s top critics and masters of wine, had over 1000 vins de pays to whittle down. It was an opportunity to look at the growing number of interesting new varietals coming from a sector that’s not hidebound by so-called classic grape varieties. In addition to the more usual chardonnay, sauvignon, cabernet, syrahs and merlot suspects, we tasted sauvignon gris, gros manseng, vermentino and among the reds braucol and carignan. But it’s not just a growing varietal palette or good value alone that singles out today’s vins de pays. Blends and high quality wines too play an increasingly important role in this diverse area. The fact that two in every five bottles of French wine sold in the UK last year were vins de pays is strong evidence of our growing respect for and enjoyment of these wines. Frog’s legs anyone?
Wines to Try:
*** 2007 Rive Haute Sauvignon, Plaimont, Vin de Pays du Gers, £7.99, Adnams, Southwold (01502 727222), Richmond (0208 9408684). Pure sauvignon blanc from the excellent Plaimont Co-operative with an aromatic, refreshing zip and tangy bite.
*** 2007 Paul Mas Estate Marsanne, Vin de Pays d’Oc, £7.99, or buy 2 = £5.99, Majestic. From Paul Mas, one of the south of France’s most go-ahead negociants, this is a impressively rich and peachy dry white made from a Rhône variety well-suited to the conditions of the Languedoc.
*** Jean-Louis Denois Cuvée, Vin de Pays d’Oc, £9.95, Berry Bros & Rudd. From the pioneering Jean-Louis denois, this is a distinctive, food-friendly oaked blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc and Grenache with exotic pink grapefruit undertones.
*** 2007 Cuvée Chasseur, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, £3.29, Waitrose. With duty now at £1.46 a bottle, it’s hard to see how they can do this at just over £3, but the bright and spicy berry fruit of this southern French charmer shows how far vins de pays have come.
*** 2007 Domaine Py Merlot, Vin de Pays d’Oc, £5.99, buy 2 = £4.99, Majestic. Merlot is not always successful in the heat of the south of France’s Languedoc-Rossillon, but this viviv blackcurrantly example is fresh and claret-like in its easy, gluggy juiciness.